Cultured beef creator Dr. Mark Prost shows off the patty in question. Via David Parry / PA Wire
After months of waiting, the first lab-grown hamburger was eaten by impartial testers this morning. According to the immediate reactions of the guinea pigs, the six-figure burger wasn't bad, but could have used some ketchup.
The tasting was presented as a livestreamed special by Maastricht University, which is home to Dr. Mark Post, the researcher who's led the lab-grown meat effort. Joining him to taste the small patty, which was prepared by chef Richard McGeown on a set resembling an infomercial, were food scientist Hanni Rützler and author Josh Schonwald.
McGeown browned the $325,000 patty in a frying pan, and served it up bare for the two taste testers. Rützler was first up. Here's the money shot:
Her immediate reaction was that the beef was lacking salt and pepper—it was served pretty much unseasononed to keep the focus on the meat itself, but who ever serves unseasoned burgers?—and she said that it was more firm than she expected. "There is quite some intense taste," Rützler said. "It is close to meat, but it is not juicy."
Schonwald tasted a small sliver next, and he spoke to a factor unique to current lab-grown beef: It has no fat content whatsoever.
"The textutre, the mouth feel, has a feel like meat," Schonwald said. "The absence is the fat. It's a leanness to it. The bite feels like a conventional hamburger."
"This is kind of an unnatural experience, because I can't tell you how many times in the last 20 years I've had a hamburger without ketchup," he said.
Despite the presentation, the testers ate the patty solo with fork and knife.
Rützler concurred. "It had a familiar mouth feel," she said. "What was most conspicuously different about it was flavor—spice, or fat."
Still, even if both taste testers looked a little weirded out as they slowly slid their forks full of cultured beef toward their maws, they say it's undoubtedly meat. "This is meat to me," said Schonwald. "It's not falling apart. It's something really to bite on. The color is right. It's very close."
Post didn't seem particularly surprised by the comments. "I think this was a very good start, and this is mostly to prove that we could do this," he said. "I'm very happy with it."
And the fat issue—no beef out there currently is 100 percent lean, like cultured beef is—is one being worked on. "It's a fair comment," Post said of the criticism. "There is no fat in here yet. We're working on that, it will take a few months before we have that down. We now some of the flavor and juiciness comes from the fat."
Notably, neither tester was clamoring to finish off the rest of the burger patty, but leaving leftovers may have been part of the agreement. When an audience member asked if she could try some, the host said that because they didn't have enough to share with everyone, they wouldn't share any. Post said he might give the leftovers to his kids.
But the big question was whether or not this means vegetarians can stop being second class citizens at barbecues. (Assuming they can afford the beef; Post told a CNBC reporter that, using current technology, the cheapest the raw beef material could get at a manufacturing scale is something like $70 per kilo, and burgers would be more expensive than that.) Well, it's meat, but it's not been slaughtered, so it may be okay for the vegetarians out there. But Post says vegetarians are better off as they are.
"Quite frankly, vegetarians should remain vegetarians, that's better for the environment than cultured beef," Post said. "We're aiming toward beef eaters that want to eat beef in a more environmental and ethical way. But the vegetarians should remain vegetarians, it's better for the environment."
So what's next? One audience member asked if the same process, which develops actual tissue by growing living cell cultures, could work to make penguin burgers. Post said theoretically it's possible, but that it's not a priority because he likes penguins and doesn't feel like eating one.
More interestingly, a Brazilian reporter asked if cultured beef would eliminate the existence of various cuts of beef, without which Brazilian churrasco—and any barbecue, really—would become bland as all hell. Post said that developing different "cuts" of lab-grown beef is a priority for future research, but that because ground beef makes up the majority of the beef market, his team is starting there first.